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Pleasure-Loving Plato: Asking the Right Questions of the Greek Comic Fragments

Matthew C. Farmer

In a fragment of Theopompus’ lost comedy “The Pleasure-Loving Man” (Ἡδυχάρης, fr.

16), one character explains to another that nobody can be sure of anything these days, “since one

is no longer one, and even two is hardly one, as Plato says.” The speaker’s reference to the

philosopher Plato led August Meineke, the great 19th century editor of comedy, to suppose that

Plato was a character in the play, that the title was an ironic nickname for him, and that the play

was, therefore, essentially a joke about Plato’s infamously dry manner of living.

Meineke was a masterful editor of fragmentary literature, but his conclusions about

Theopompus’ comedy form a classic example of how far astray we can go when we ask

fragments the wrong questions. With Greek comedy, the most tempting questions – what was the

plot? who were the characters? who are the objects of mockery and satire? where is the poet’s

voice? – often yield the most misleading answers, and a compelling but baseless reconstruction

of a fragmentary play can close off more productive avenues of inquiry for generations. It would

be delightful to know that Theopompus had written a comedy about Plato, and it’s painful to

reject Meineke’s reconstruction, as Kaibel finally did; in a sense we lose the comedy all over

again, as the fragments cease to resemble a play and become once more a heap of disiecta

membra.

The fragments of Greek comedy are undergoing a renaissance. Sparked by the

appearance of Kassel and Austin’s magisterial edition and a now-famous conference on the

“Rivals of Aristophanes”, critics of comedy have begun to produce monographs on individual

poets, translations and commentaries of the fragments, and collections of essays on the world of

comedy beyond Aristophanes. The most insightful products of this revival have been the work of

critics who not only resist the urge to force the fragments to answer old, unanswerable questions

of plot and cast, but who find new questions the comic fragments can answer.

In this paper I use the fragments of Theopompus, a younger contemporary of

Aristophanes, as a case study illustrating new approaches to this material. Fragment 16, for

example, can tell us something about the scene it was excerpted from if we resist for a moment

the allure of that name “Plato” and focus instead on the inconspicuous particle γάρ: whoever this

character is, his γάρ shows us he is using this garbled reference to the Phaedo to prove a point;

already in the early fourth century, then, Theopompus’ audience could understand the use of

Plato’s name to win an argument. Plato, it turns out, is mentioned by name about a dozen times

in fourth-century comedy, sometimes with accurate allusions to his views, sometimes not, and

the reference to him in Ἡδυχάρης is much more useful against this background than it is as a

tool for uncovering the plot of Theopompus’ play or the meaning of its title.

The hundred or so fragments that remain of Theopompus yield various riches when we

look to them for something other than the missing plots of his comedies: close attention to

citation context, for example, reveals an Odysseus in fr. 34 who praises the accuracy of a

Homeric simile; fr. 5, when connected with jokes in Nicochares and Plato Comicus, becomes

part of a capping game among a group of comic poets who seek to outdo one another by

comparing the wealthy Philonides to various disgusting animals. Drawing on the work I have done in

preparing a commentary on Theopompus, I use the comic fragments in this paper to showcase

the possibilities we can unlock when we stop asking fragments the questions we want answers to,

and ask instead the questions the fragments themselves want to answer.

Session/Panel Title:

Fragments from Theory to Practice

Session/Paper Number

43.1

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